Magazine article History Today

Monsters and Christian Enemies

Magazine article History Today

Monsters and Christian Enemies

Article excerpt

Debra Higgs Strickland examines the extraordinary demonology of medieval Christendom and the way it endowed strangers and enemies with monstrous qualities.

WESTERN MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANS SAW many monsters, both living and imaginary. Although very real to believers, demons and the elusive `Monstrous Races' did not really exist; but Jews, Muslims, Mongols, and Black Africans -- all deemed `monstrous' by the Christian majority -- actually did. But not every monster was necessarily bad; holy persons and even God himself were sometimes represented as `monsters'. Highlighting what these disparate groups had in common from the Christian viewpoint helps explain what being a `monster' meant in the later Middle Ages.

The imaginary Monstrous Races, may be defined as malformed, malcontented and misbehaving creatures believed to inhabit the periphery of the known world, primarily India, Ethiopia, and the far North. The race of Panotii, for example, whose name means `all ears', were believed to possess ears so large they could sleep in them. The Cynocephali, or Dogheads, communicated only by barking. The Blemmyai were headless and had their faces on their chests. The Sciopods, although one-legged, were very swift and used their single large feet as parasols.

Much of the lore concerning the Monstrous Races was inherited and expanded during the Middle Ages from classical Greek sources, especially Pliny's Natural History. We know from medieval sources such as the Book of Monsters and the Marvels of the East that the Monstrous Races were elusive, either very aggressive or very shy, and often cannibalistic. Their truly unifying feature, however, was their physical abnormality, which may be explained through recourse to various ancient scientific theories, attributable to Hippocrates and Galen, among others. For example, application of climatic theory suggests that the Monstrous Races were physically abnormal owing to the hostile climates they lived in, as harsh environmental conditions were believed to affect physical form in adverse ways. Or, if one follows the implications of classical physiognomical theory, which states that external appearance is a visual manifestation of inner character, the Monstrous Races were malformed owing to their various moral shortcomings.

In fact, it was the `Christianisation' of physiognomical theory that inspired many interpretations of the Monstrous Races by medieval moralists, who recognised their potential as effective symbolic vehicles. In collections of moralised tales, such as the Gesta Romanorum and other exempla used in medieval sermons, the particular physical deformity of a given race is interpreted under the assumption that it signified a particular sin or moral shortcoming. For example, the Panotii were said to use their huge ears to hear evil, while barking Dogheads were compared to bad preachers. The Blemmyae, with their heads on their chests, were compared to gluttons; and Pygmies who fought cranes were said to be `short' with respect to a good life.

Not all of the Monstrous Races were interpreted as signs of vice; in certain contexts, some were viewed as signs of virtue. Hence, the sheltering foot of the Sciopod was the virtue of love, which allows swift gains in the heavenly kingdom. The sharp-shooting Maritimi had one each of his four eyes on God, the world, the devil, and the flesh; in order to live rightly, flee the world, resist the devil, and mortify the flesh.

No roster of medieval monsters would be complete without demons, arguably the most well-developed concept of evil and moral bankruptcy ever devised. Images and descriptions of demons reinforced the medieval Christian belief that once Lucifer was kicked out of heaven for his excessive pride, he transmogrified permanently into the dark and hideous Satan and relentlessly sought revenge for his lost status by seducing and destroying human souls with the aid of his numberless minions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.